I was going to write an article about rider balance, but as I explored the topic I thought of other situations where balance plays an important part in horsemanship. I’ll explore each below.
Riding – Any part of the riders’ body that is off-balance will affect the horse. If the torso is leaning forward, back, or sidewards the horse must compensate for this, affecting the symmetry and ease of movement. Imagine you have on a backpack with a small animal in it. If the animal is leaning you must adjust your body to rebalance. It’s the same for the horse.
If the rider puts more weight in one stirrup, or they are different lengths, this will have the same affect. Most of us are one side dominant, notice which leg you lead with going up stairs. Check your seat bones, are they carrying equal weight and positioned equally? Some riders collapse through one hip or drop one shoulder lower. Carrying the head forward affects the balance of the whole body. Many give stronger rein aids with the dominant hand, or ineffective aids with the weak. We can hold one hand higher, lower, to the side or inwards. All these deviations create imbalance. So what to do about it?
Proprioception, the ability to know exactly where our body parts are, is not perfect. Everyone needs someone on the ground occasionally giving feedback. Riding bareback or without stirrups is great for improving balance, as is riding in two-point seat at the trot. Also, our emotions need to be balanced. Unbalanced emotions have a huge effect on horses. If you’re feeling emotionally wobbly, spending time in the paddock or grooming instead of training or working might be best.
Horses – just like their riders, every horse has a preferred side. I have only met one horse who felt totally even on both sides. Understanding your horse’s dominant and weak sides is essential if you are to work towards balance. 100% balance is rarely achieved, but it can be improved by doing more work on the 'tricky' side. And just like us, a horse may have one hoof/leg that’s a slightly different in size or have had an old injury that affects one side. There may be many reasons, but the important thing is to know that it’s normal, so it's best to accept it and work with it. Handling – when handling horses, we tend to be one sided. We even call the left the near side and the right the far or offside. Lots of horse gear is designed to be done up on the left side. Most of us are taught to lead on the left side. We also mount and dismount on the left side, putting one-sided pressure on the horses spine, the saddle tree and the stirrup leather. Over time we spend way more time on the left side. Then we sit on the horse and expect them to be the same to the right or left. This is a bit unfair when you think about it. The whole one sided thing started with the cavalry, where with a row of horses standing side by side and swords hanging from hips, it made sense for everyone to mount from the same side. It doesn't make sense anymore. If we mount, dismount, lead and handle the horse equally from both sides, we can reduce this imbalance enormously. Also check the saddle is perfectly balanced, before and after mounting. The gullet needs to run directly over the spine, with flaps and stirrups the same length. Looking at the saddle from behind, ensuring the centre of the cantle is on the spine, is a good way to check.
Working – We need to do riding and groundwork in the same amounts in both directions. If a horse is finding one side difficult, we might initially spend extra time on that side trying to balance it up, but generally we try to be equal. Within a training session, alternate between body work (e.g., trot circles) and brain work (e.g., learning a new skill). If you do too much brain work without a change, the horse may shut down or resist. If you only do body work, they may start running along brainlessly. In the whole picture it’s also good to balance how much time a horse spends in training, and having fun e.g., trail rides with other horses. Finding balance is something we’re striving for in daily life. It’s important we apply the same philosophy in our horsemanship. Balanced horse riding should be the goal of all equestrians. A well-balanced combination of horse and human requires less effort, is healthier for the body and a joy to both experience and watch.